Browse the health and lifestyle magazines in your local store and within no time you will find an article advocating mindfulness and encouraging you to live in the moment. Indeed, many books on the subject have become bestsellers: Eckhart Tolle's Power of Now, for example, is now a cult classic. Inevitably, of course, such fads provoke a backlash. And, given how humorless and smug some mindfulness converts can be, this is quite understandable. But it is also a pity, since truly living in and embracing the moment really can change your life.
Most people spend the majority of their time thinking about either the past or the future. For some, such thoughts offer a pleasant escape, with the past bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow and the future anticipated with relish. Most, however, are conflicted, even tormented. Many look back with bitterness and regret, wondering how life might have been had they pursued their acting dreams, avoided drugs, not gone into teaching, won a place at that smart ivy league college, and so on. Indeed, many people should have "what if," or "if only" carved onto their gravestones. As for the future, who hasn't dreaded illness, retirement, the kids leaving for college, or the ageing and death of loved ones?
Such thoughts really can be all-consuming. And they are uniquely human. No other animal does this; they live entirely in the moment. Watch a dog out for his morning walk. When you open the car door and throw him a ball, notice how focussed he is. He isn't dwelling on the nasty operation he had last month, or dreading his weekly bath! Instead, all his attention is consumed by the ball, the scents, and the other dogs.
Unfortunately, it is often in someone's interests to keep us thinking about past and future. Teachers and parents tell children that they must study hard so they can win a place at a good college; when they get to that college, they are told to start thinking about careers; and when they then embark on that career, they are told to strive for promotion! By keeping people focussed on, and worried about, the future, they can be persuaded to work hard and act responsibly.
Advertisers and news outlets also exploit this tendency to drift off into past and future. Nostalgia, for example, sells. And so does fear. Countless newspaper headlines contain alarmist phrases like "imminent collapse" and "potential chaos," or will ask rhetorical questions like "what does this mean for pensions?" and "how is this going to affect future U.S. - China relations?" And of course many of the big issues, like climate change, overpopulation, mass migration etc. also keep people thinking about future events.
The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut would often end a lecture by telling the audience about his uncle's philosophy of life. This uncle disliked the way some people draw attention to obviously unpleasant events. If a car breaks down, or it rains during the family barbecue, they can always be relied on to point this out and to emphasize what a horrible time everyone is having. And yet, Vonnegut's uncle would say, no one seems to bother when things are going well. So he always made a point of saying "well isn't this nice" whenever he was enjoying himself.
If you wish to fully embrace the present, begin with the senses. You engage with the world by looking, listening, touching, smelling, and tasting. Be sure to savour them all. If you are settling into a bubble bath, really focus on the warm water lapping against your skin, on the sound of gurgling and splashing. When your favorite meal arrives, take a moment to enjoy the smell, to observe the cheese and sauce melting into the bread. And when you eat, do so slowly, fully tasting every mouthful – don't just gulp it down while you worry about tomorrow's job interview. When you pour a glass of wine, listen to the pop as the cork is removed, and the glug glug sound as it fills the glass. Look at the deep, rich colors, and inhale the scent. Life comes at you through the senses, so make the most of them.
Next, consider the way you think about your own past and future. If the past is a source of torment to you, why not let it go? Clinging onto past hurt is like gripping the edge of a boiling saucepan and then yelling in pain. You are the one gripping the pan – no one told you to do so. But mawkish nostalgia is just as dangerous. Be more honest with yourself. Were things really so great as you imagine? Wasn't the past also full of loneliness, insecurity, and fear? As for the future, ration the time you spend there. Make your plans and leave it at that. Whenever you catch yourself imagining life 10 or 20 years from now, just think "for all I know an asteroid could strike the Earth in six months and wipe us all out!" It is a sobering and useful exercise!
Cultivating an appreciation for beauty will also keep you grounded and focussed on life here and now. In late 19th century Europe, an entire movement formed around this idea, known as Aestheticism. The Oxford Professor Walter Pater, for example, (later tutor to Oscar Wilde, perhaps the most famous of the Aesthetes) published his History of the Renaissance in 1873, a work of scholarship that concluded with an eloquent and passionate call for a new kind of life. Pater argued that we should live for the pleasure we experience in the presence of beauty: "experience itself is the end... To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy."
For some, beauty is found above all in the art gallery, for others in the mountains and fields, in watching their children grow, or even in the theories and discoveries of science. Pater believed that taste and sensitivity to beauty should be refined above all else – including intellect and morality. And that means truly engaging with life here and now. After all, you cannot appreciate a sunset from last week, or stand before a Turner painting last month!
Then there is the sense of wonder. Popular science books are filled with staggering, eye-popping facts. And you can take these facts out into the world. When you look up at the night sky, knowing that there are around 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone should be enough to keep you transfixed. Most fundamentally, it is astonishing that anything exists at all! Why is there a universe? And why does it take the form it does? Wonder at the world before you here and now: at the stars, the planets, the changing of the seasons, the mountains and deserts, the life of animals, and so on.
In the late 1960s, the Hungarian psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed a technique he described as living "in the flow". This is essentially a state of mind in which you are so absorbed in something you lose all track of time. Most people have experienced it at some point, usually when engrossed in a hobby or creative activity. Watch a car enthusiast, for example, as he begins to restore a classic car bought at an auction. As he polishes and files away, nothing else matters. Or watch a painter absorbed in the canvas. Some people will literally fail to notice a loud knock on the door or the ringing of a telephone. And they will be oblivious to their backache or thirst.
For Csikszentmihalyi, the key is to find a balance between skill and challenge. In other words, if you are rock climbing or playing the piano, you must be good enough never to feel frustrated or overwhelmed. On the other hand, the task needs to be challenging enough to keep you interested. A professional rock climber will not experience flow if he is asked to climb a gently curving slope! On the contrary, it will be so easy that his mind will drift off to the argument he had that morning with his wife or the dentist appointment he has that afternoon.
Finally, it is important to be open both to new experiences and to learning new things. Children are experts at living in the moment. Have you ever observed a child watching a ladybug crawl across her hand? Notice how utterly absorbed the child is. As people age, they naturally accumulate a great deal of regret and guilt, keeping them trapped in the past. And of course they have responsibilities and worries that also keep them focussed on the future. Avoiding this takes discipline and effort.